When Memoir and History Collide

67 Shots

“…Kent State on that early afternoon of May 4 is where all the raging waters of the 1960s, bad and good, evil and sublime, flowed together for one brief, horrible moment.”

“…the Guardsmen turned back toward the parking lot, went down on one knee or crouched, and raised their M1s to their shoulders.”     –     Howard Means, 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence

Excavating a Life

May 4, 2016 is the 46th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State in Ohio, where four students were killed and nine injured by the National Guard during campus protests of US involvement in the Vietnam War.

I was fifteen at the time and lived about 40 minutes away from the Kent State campus. That tragic day has a part to play in the memoir I’m writing, but at first I didn’t realize it. In early memoir drafts, I mentioned May 4 only briefly. In my view it was someone else’s story, and I was having a hard time remembering how I felt about this tragedy that happened so long ago. 

But the more I wrote, the more Kent State haunted me. I began to realize May 4 had been a turning point in my political consciousness. It’s probably more accurate to say that Kent State was the birth of my political consciousness. 

I began to think about the role of the tumultuous 1960s in the life of my family. I had two younger brothers, and I didn’t realize back then how much my father worried about them being drafted. Years later, he told me he’d happily have given them some cash and urged them off to Canada. A World War II veteran with a Purple Heart and an active member of AMVETS, my dad kept his anti-war opinions to himself because he’d have been viewed as unpatriotic by most of his friends.

My father was badly wounded during World War II, and in retrospect I think he may have had a form of PTSD. In the days after May 4, it was common to hear angry locals say the National Guard should have shot all of the student protesters. I don’t recall talking with my father about Kent, but he must have been horrified by the military takeover of the campus and the fact that students had been killed.

As for me, up until May 4, 1970, I’d been just an interested onlooker while the 1960s played out on the nightly news. I had my hands full maneuvering my teen years with a mentally ill mother, and I hadn’t given much thought to social causes. But suddenly the older brothers and sisters of my friends were hitchhiking home, refugees from Kent State, Ohio State, and other local colleges that had been shut down amid protests, tear gassing, and riots. I recall plenty of arguing about who did what to whom and who was at fault.

To me, it seemed clear: the National Guard had bullets, and the students didn’t.

For decades, people have been trying to piece together the sequence of events that led to the Kent State tragedy on May 4, with only partial success. No one directly or indirectly involved has the big picture, and it’s unlikely anyone ever will. My Spanish teacher took a leave for a couple of months to serve on the federal grand jury that investigated the shootings. Later, she told us that she remained baffled. No one admitted to giving the order to fire on the students, and no one was held accountable.

67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence by Howard Means was published in April, and I bought the book as soon as it was available. It’s a fascinating read that has given me a much clearer picture of the fraught atmosphere in my part of the world and in the nation in 1970. This historical context will be invaluable as I continue to work on my memoir.

I think Means has done a good job of even-handedly summarizing what is known about May 4, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath. His book is a page-turner, packed with many first-person accounts from all sides: student onlookers, student protesters, Guardsmen, Kent faculty and administration, and many others.

Now I understand that there was no focused planning by the students protesting the war in the days before May 4 and on that fateful afternoon. In fact, the hard-core protesters were only a small group among many thousands of students who were curious onlookers or simply passing by on their way to class. Nor did the Kent State administration, the office of Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, or the National Guard have a rational plan for diffusing the situation.

Instead, as Means clearly depicts, there was only monumental incompetence and mismanagement on the part of just about everyone.

Ultimately, Means takes the view that the students had a right to peacefully assemble and protest, and this right was violated by a vast over-reaction that turned deadly when the military became involved.

Means makes clear that the students weren’t blameless. A small group of them burned down the ROTC building on the Friday evening before the Monday shootings, and a crowd of drunk students vandalized businesses in downtown Kent, badly frightening the residents. (ROTC buildings on many a campus across the nation were destroyed.) Just before the shootings, the hard-core war protesters were throwing rocks and bricks at the Guardsmen. But Means says that videotapes show these students weren’t close enough to the Guardsmen to seriously hurt them, and in the end only one Guardsman was taken to the hospital, for hyperventilation.

Here are a few excerpts that I found enlightening but disturbing. I hadn’t realized the depth of the hostility between Kent State and the larger community back then:

“’The town hated the students, and the town hated the faculty,’ recalled Lew Fried, who joined the English faculty in the fall of 1969 and would remain at Kent State for the rest of his career. ‘This was a very conservative, right-wing-to-reactionary town. I was told that after the shootings, when students were being forced to leave campus, the majority of the town, which had grown fat on student-generated income, refused to sell them food, refused to sell them gas.'”

And this:

“Janice Marie Wascko was sitting with her roommates on the front lawn of their house in downtown Kent that evening when a patrolling police cruiser noticed antiwar slogans chalked on the sidewalk and a low retaining wall. The cruiser, she said, had no license plates. Badge numbers were taped over. ‘They had a sawed-off shotgun and pulled it on us. And they got out of the cruiser and stood there, pulled the guns on us, and said, ‘Wipe it up, scum,’ and made us get down on our hands and knees and wipe it off, the slogans off the wall and the sidewalk. [They were] saying, ‘We should have killed you all,’ and laughing at us. A short time later…they caught somebody down by what is Pufferbelly’s [restaurant] now and beat the crap out of him against a wall.’”

I’ve been selective in the excerpts I’ve included, based on my own stance and bias. I want to emphasize that Means provides a more balanced, nuanced view in 67 Shots.

Here are additional points from the book that I found noteworthy:

  • Over 1300 National Guardsmen, 17 helicopters, and 250 half tracks, full tracks and armored personnel carriers, including three mortar launchers, were sent to the Kent State campus. On Saturday and Sunday before the shootings, helicopters hovered 24/7 over the campus and town, lighting the sky with searchlights throughout the night. This greatly fueled paranoia, suspicion, and fear among the students and townspeople.
  • After initial media stories mistakenly reported that National Guard soldiers had been killed, some residents of Kent were armed and ready in the streets and on rooftops for the hordes of students they feared were about to raid their town. Rumors circulated that student radicals had poisoned the water supply with LSD.
  • The vast majority of Kent State students were interested onlookers, not war protestors, but some became instantly radicalized by the overwhelming military presence. Most students and faculty assumed that the National Guardsmen’s M1 rifles were not loaded. Many of the Guardsmen were young, inexperienced, and poorly led – local boys who were the same age as the students.
  • President Nixon was frustrated when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his COINTELPRO program of spying on war protestors, black activists, and women’s rights and lesbian/gay groups found no evidence of communist involvement in the protests at Kent and other universities. Some historians believe Kent State was the beginning of Nixon’s downfall – his obsession with spying eventually ended in the Watergate scandal.
  • Some say Kent State helped stopped the Vietnam War. Others believe the military response had a chilling effect on protests; in the 1970s social movements died out and people turned inward.

There’s lots more I could say about 67 Shots and its impact on my own story. I also worry about how ripe we are here in the US again for protests to become violent. But for now, I’ll leave you with this:

My dad often told stories about World War II, which I now realize he censored quite heavily. One day when our sons, Andrew and Matt, were just old enough to appreciate that their grandfather had once been a young man with interesting experiences, we’d been talking about the war in Iraq. My father reminisced about being drafted in World War II and boarding the train with his cousin, bound for basic training, and how the extended family saw them off. He talked about the Battle of Metz, where he was wounded and many were killed.

“I think about the war every single day of my life.” Turning to Andrew and Matt, my father said, “War is a terrible thing. Just because someone tells you to do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

The song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young captures the tenor of the times. There is a video with Kent State photos and an “Ohio” soundtrack uploaded by Mars Daniels on YouTube you might want to check out. Daniels claims fair use, but I have my doubts about copyright legality, so I’m not linking to it directly.

Note: Ten days after the Kent State shootings, two African American students were killed and many were wounded by police and state troopers at Jackson State College in Mississippi. The students were protesting racial intimidation as well as the killings at Kent State. The tragedy at Jackson State received little media coverage, whereas the deaths of white students at Kent was all over the news.

If you lived through the 1960s, are there events that resonate for you on a personal level? If you’re younger, do your parents have memories of that time that they find especially meaningful? If you write memoir, have you used historical sources to shed light on your own formative experiences?



19 thoughts on “When Memoir and History Collide”

  1. I was 12 when Kent State happened and I also remember some of my relatives and friends of my parents saying they should have shot more of the protesters. My father was a Navy veteran but he was anti-war and took me to some demonstrations when I was very young. My parents were ready to move the whole family to Canada to keep my older brothers out of Vietnam.

  2. Beautiful post, Valorie. I wanted to take time and read it slowly and pause and think about every line, because of the importance of the topic. It is hard today to believe that in the late ’60s / early ’70s even democratic government spied on people. Your description of how Kent State was lit up with searchlights and how helicopters hovered in the air throughout the night, and how it made the residents paranoid, is quite scary to read. I loved your observation – “To me, it seemed clear: the National Guard had bullets, and the students didn’t.” Very beautifully put, and I totally agree with you. I don’t know how governments will handle protests these days. Hopefully they are mature enough to not use guns and bullets. I also find the world has changed very much today – once upon a time people fought for rights and freedom and put themselves in the way of harm. They were not afraid to take on the government. Today I find that, in general, people want calm and safe lives, they don’t want to offend someone, they just want to have good jobs and make money and have safe lives. I don’t know whether this is my own opinion born out of nostalgia for an era in which I was not around, or whether this is really true. What do you think?

    1. Vishy, thanks SO much for reading and commenting so thoughtfully. I feel as though the world may be heading into a time like the 60s again, when we could see more demonstrating and protesting, because there are so many divisive issues coming to a head – especially inequality across the world, and climate change. I like to see healthy, civil, nonviolent activism, but not violent protest. The Republican Convention in the US this July is causing apprehension among people, as some fear there could be violent protests. I don’t live in Cleveland and haven’t for many many years, but it is my hometown and so I will be following this with great interest. It will be interesting for us book and art/culture bloggers to continue to read and watch and think about great fiction, nonfiction, movies, etc. that deal with some of these issues and the people around the world in the center of them. Really glad to be having this conversation with you. Also love hearing about the books that you, Claire, and many others who live in places I may never get to are reading and that you feel are good and important.:)

  3. This sounds like an excellent book and I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it and your personal experience. I was born in 1968 and have no memory of the 60s and not a whole lot of the 70s. My parents don’t talk about the 60s. I asked my mom once about Vietnam and she had friends who were drafted and killed and that is all she would say.

    1. Stefanie – it was such a lively and chaotic time. And, actually, I think the protesters and hippies and such got a lot of attention, but they weren’t the majority, so sometimes one gets a skewed picture of the times. On the other hand, many things changed for the better – the war ended, finally, civil rights, feminism, etc.

  4. Thinking about your questions makes me feel like I’ve led a pretty sheltered life. Or else my parents just didn’t like to talk about bad things. I’m sure if I asked them now, they’d be happy to talk about things they remember, but growing up the biggest ‘issues’ I remember talking about as a family were world hunger and the West Ray Mine disaster (which happened in Nova Scotia in 1992). We also talked about WWII at times, because my grandfather had been in it.
    Thanks for writing about this event – I didn’t even know about it. It sounds interesting!

    1. Naomi, that is interesting that you talked about world hunger in your family and also the mine disaster, which I’m not familiar with. I know a few people whose parents were at Kent State at that time, but they don’t talk about it much. I find family stories, especially those handed down through next generations, fascinating.

      1. I do, too. Which is why I now wish we had talked about things other than whose turn it was to do the dishes. 🙂 And, I desperately wish I had paid more attention to my grandfather when he felt like talking about the war. And my grandmother was a writer for the CBC, but I had no idea for years and years, because she didn’t talk about it. To have those years back…

      1. Hi Melanie so glad you stopped by. Your site is fascinating, you are so prolific. I don’t remember when Malcolm X was assassinated which speaks to my previous post about Ta nehisi Coates’ books and how growing up in our town blacks and whites lived parallel but very separate lives.

      2. Thanks for your kind words, Valorie. I asked about Malcolm X because I teach his autobiography every semester to my freshman composition class. His ideas were so pivotal in shaping the groups and individuals who came after. My grandparents lived in rural farming communities, so they don’t remember. I figured you must have been pretty young! I’ll try again to respond to the other lady’s comment 🙂

  5. I lived through the 60’s and remember the tragedy at Kent State. I guess what really sticks with me from those years were the assassinations of the President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Dr. King. In the 60’s the murder of a person(s) was news. Today, the news goes for 30 minutes about the killing of so many you lose track of the number. Kent State was just the beginning of a terrible slide.

      1. I could give you the answer that ‘yes’ I remembered, but the truth is that I had to look the year up and that allowed me to read more about his life and death. So, I thank you for the opportunity to do that.

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